When the security guard in the Tokyo Narita Airport asked to put my bag through the X-ray machine a second time, I couldn’t help but tense up.
“Hi,” I said, assenting in Japanese. It was one of the few words I knew—along with some basic greetings and a handful of numbers. My language was limited, and as the bag went back to the conveyor belt, I started running through worst-case scenarios: With my limited Japanese and their limited English, how would I explain the thing I was carrying in my bag—the thing I knew they were looking at, the thing they couldn’t quite understand?
I wasn’t carrying anything illegal. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
But as they unzipped the lowest pocket of my pack, plastic gloves on, and asked me if they could search my bag, I braced myself.
How would explain myself when they pulled out my soft, heavy, penis-shaped packer?
This all began last May, when I was passing through San Francisco on my way out of the country for a yearlong adventure around the world. At the time (and perhaps still), my gender identity was in flux. I knew I was somewhere on the non-binary spectrum and had settled for a while on the term “gender non-conforming woman,” though more and more I simply called myself “gender non-conforming.”
When people called me “ma’am,” I felt a knee-jerk rejection, and when asked about my pronouns, I’d begun to offer both “they/them” and “she/her” as options. I’d just bought my first binder a few months before and had begun wearing it with more regularity.
And while I’d made plans to potentially pass as a man while I traveled (for safety as much as anything), I hadn’t planned to bring a packer. Yet, during the course of my stay in San Francisco, I visited a friend of mine who worked at Good Vibrations, a feminist, sex-positive, queer- and trans-friendly sex toy store with several locations in the Bay Area.
As she gave my travel buddy Keyes and I the grand tour, I stood before the packers with curiosity. Really, I told myself, I was lingering for Keyes, who identifies as a non-binary trans man.
When I asked my friend about the packers they had in stock—the cost, the styles—she said, “Well, I have one the store gave me, but I’ve never used it. I can give it to you!”
It was quite easily the most unexpected but perhaps the most appropriate going away gift I got.
The trouble came with packing it.
As Keyes and I headed to the San Francisco airport to begin our journey in Asia, I was unsure what to do with it. What was the best option for traveling?
I’d heard of plenty of trans people getting harassed by airport security, and I wondered what other trans men and transmasculine folks do, especially if they haven’t gotten the gender marker or name on their documents changed. And it made me acutely aware of the barriers trans people might face while traveling.
I’d thought about wearing it, but I opted to put my packer in my pack instead, knowing that an uncomfortable conversation might occur when they pulled a penis from my bag but deciding it was safer than the one that might occur if they saw a big white blob where my privates were on the body screener.
I went through the line first. Of course, I was “ma’amed,” and I again thought of all the trans people who likely get misgendered on their way through airports and security lines. (A few months before, I’d even been affectionately called “ladybug” by a TSA agent in the South.)
As Keyes came through, the agent said, “ma’am.” But when they saw a white blotch on the screen just below Keyes’ waist (they actually weren’t wearing a packer, but it was some kind of glitch), the agent switched to “they” when talking about Keyes going through the scanner again.
Yet, in a world of the binary “ma’am’s” and “sir’s,” the damage was already done. And while I knew Keyes and I had many more security lines to go through during our three weeks in South Korea and Japan, I wished I could let Keyes skip all of them. Every time we got tickets with Keyes’ birth name on them (in trans terms, often known as a person’s “dead name”), I wished they’d been able to change their documents before we left. And every time we had to check the “M” or “F” boxes on immigration forms or hostel registers, I wished that there could be a non-binary option on both our passports and the myriad of paperwork we had to fill out.
Instead, there Keyes was, each time, being called a first name I never knew them by and a gender they’d given up a long time ago.
It was on my second time through Tokyo Narita Airport security that I finally got stopped.
When Keyes and I went through the Tokyo Narita Airport a few weeks before, laid over on our way to Seoul, my bag went through the security scanner without incident. (I, however, caused plenty of confusion: When I was pulled aside, a male security agent was just about ready to pat me down when he was stopped by a female agent nearby. They had a brief, awkward exchange, smiled at me, and quickly changed places.)
And on the ferry from Busan to Fukuoka, Keyes and I and our bags were simply waved on through at both ports.
However, after Keyes had left and I was headed back to Seoul to spend a few months in the country that is like my second home, the careful bag screeners noted an aberration, exchanging a few words with each other in Japanese and pointing at the screen.
When the bag came out at a second time, I watched, pre-emptively mortified, as the security agent’s hands dug into the pocket where the packer was.
There were people all around. I knew she would pull it out at any minute.
A number of thoughts ran through my head:
How do you explain the complexities of a budding non-binary identity across this kind of language barrier?
I’d been mistaken for a “handsome” man a couple times in Japan already. Perhaps that could play in my favor?
Would they understand what “transgender” or “gender non-conforming” means?
Should I say I’m a drag performer instead? Would that make more sense?
Maybe “drag” wouldn’t translate well, so instead I could say I was like a takarazuka performer.
Maybe if I just said that, “takarazuka,” over and over, they might understand.
The agent’s hands were poised right where the packer lay hidden. She’d taken out my toiletry bag and dug past the underwear I’d stacked on top of it. She hovered there for a moment, and after a pause, she zipped up the bag. For the third and then the fourth time, she put the bag through the X-ray machine. And finally, after another exchange with her colleague and offering me a professional smile, she pushed the bag to me.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I can go?” I asked.
She nodded. I hitched the bag on my back and hurried toward my gate before they could call me back.
When the time came for me to board another plane, a few weeks later, this time flying from Jeju Island back to Seoul, I was struck with indecision.
I was then traveling with my friend Suzanne, who I’d visited near San Fran only a few weeks ago, when I stayed with her and her wife on her family’s ranch. I told her about Tokyo, and how the last thing I wanted was for some Korean security guard to pull a penis from my backpack. How I wasn’t even sure yet if I liked having or wearing a packer, and still, there it was.
“Why don’t you just wear it?” Suzanne suggested matter-of-factly, the day before we left the island.
I imagined getting patted down, me with my “F” on my passport, and someone thinking I had a bomb tucked in up there and getting strip searched or imprisoned or deported or—
When I told Suzanne as much, she laughed. We both knew that the Korean security didn’t have the invasive body scanners like the U.S., and the packer wouldn’t set off the metal detector.
“Just wear it,” Suzanne said. “Or would you rather they pulled it from your pack?”
The next day, I tucked the packer snugly into my underwear. I’d worn it a few times before, but now I felt like I was smuggling contraband. I mean, I’d worried about it shifting uncomfortably or (again with the worst-case scenarios) getting stuck in the leg of my jeans or, heaven forbid, falling out, landing conspicuously by my foot. I imagined myself responding non-chalantly—“oh, look, a penis!”—as if I had no clue how it had gotten there.
But this was something different.
And when I passed through the security line unchallenged, I felt both triumphant and dismayed—I could pack a packer in my underwear with no problem but couldn’t carry more than 100ml in a bottle of shampoo?
The thing was, I still didn’t know how I felt about wearing the packer, much less carrying it across the world—to places whose strict security guidelines and expressionless guards gave me enough pause as it was. If challenged, how would I explain my precious cargo to Indian police or security agents in Myanmar? If patted down, if searched, what would I say in countries that have less-than-favorable views about the LGBTQ community? Or that are explicitly anti-LGBTQ?
I was sitting in a hostel in Sokcho, South Korea, on the east coast of the country, thinking about these things, alone in my private room as I introverted after weeks of traveling with Keyes and then Suzanne. As I used the clippers I brought along to cut my own hair. As I put on my binder to go out, tucked my packer in my briefs, wondering if the front desk person would notice the buzzed sides of my hair, my flat chest. As I reminded myself to drop the tone of my voice as I ordered kimchi fried rice at a diner nearby. As I wondered what gender the restaurant owner thought I was when she engaged me in conversation and showed extra kindness to me—a free cup of instant coffee after the meal.
And I thought of the panic that went through me in the Tokyo airport and knew that, as I was just beginning to be able to articulate my existence in my native language, I wouldn’t be able to do so in the tongues of these other countries. That each security line would feel like a risk. That each question would bring more anxiety than I already experienced.
The packer in my bag and the weight of these thoughts pushed at the corners of my mind, and I wasn’t ready to unpack them.
So, a few days later, when I was leaving Sokcho, I wrapped the packer tightly in a small plastic bag and stuffed it in the bottom of the trash can in my room.
I wondered what, if anything, the cleaning staff would say if they found it.
Photo credit: © Bailey Cheng. Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-2.0) license.